Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Jersey Devil-- New Jersey

The Devil walking along the ground with folded wings.
Sorry for the long delay, folks.  I've been pretty busy the last few months with family stuff and a writing project.  But now I'm back to the cryptids again with the Garden State's favorite monster.

The Jersey Devil, also called the Leeds Devil, is a winged beast that supposedly inhabits the Pine Barrens along the Jersey coast. It is said to have the head of a horse, wings of a bat, cloven hooves and a forked tail. The beast has been sighted numerous times throughout the twentieth century, starting with a rash of reports around 1909.
Before I talk about the beast's origins, though, I think it's worth talking a little bit about the Pine Barrens themselves. The Barrens are part of the Atlantic Coastal Plain-- a flat apron of land along the Atlantic shore of North America formed from minerals eroded out of the Appalachian mountains and washed down towards the sea.  Soils here are sandy and acidic, which made it nearly impossible for early settlers to grow their traditional crops.  Yet, despite the name, the Barrens are ecologically diverse and species-rich.  Natural fires, typically caused by lightning strikes, play a huge role in the Barrens ecosystem. Where fires are frequent (relatively speaking. Fires usually only occur naturally once every three to five years), the land is occupied primarily by pitch, scrub and shortleaf pine (Pinus rigida, P. echinata and P. virginiana, respectively), with wide open spaces between occupied by grassy savanna.  Where fires are more infrequent-  whether due to human intervention or wetter soils-- the forest is a tighter mix of pines and species of oaks.  Dark swamps of Atlantic white cedar form along the water ways and numerous bogs-- complete with carnivorous sundews and Sarracenia pitcher plants-- dot the landscape. The Pine Barrens are a pretty cool region and worth check ing out. Go here to learn more.

Now, on to the Devil itself. The classic story of the Jersey Devil's origins concern a woman known as "Mother Leeds" who dwelt in the Pine Barrens in the late 1700s.  According to some legends, Leeds already had 12 children and was so frustrated when she discovered that she was pregnant with a 13th that she openly wished that this one would turn out to be the Devil himself.  When the child was born, it was monstrously deformed.  It could walk and  talk fresh out of the womb and, after cursing its mother,  the creature flew up the chimney and out into the night. Since then the Leeds Devil has haunted the Pine Barrens, emitting its piercing shriek and terrorizing the inhabitants.

However, Brian Regal, who teaches the history of science at Kean University, has a less supernatural, though still historically intriguing, explanation for the Devil.  According to Regal, the story can be traced back to Daniel Leeds, a councilor to the early governor of New Jersey.  Leeds, a Quaker, published an almanac which made use of astrological data which did not sit well with other members of the Society of Friends, who found this aspect of his publication a bit too "pagan". Leeds did not take well to being insulted by his fellows, and ended up publishing even more esoteric works that  slowly pushed him farther and farther away from other Quakers. His reputation was further degraded by his outspoken support for royal authority at a time when thoughts of revolution were stirring in the minds of many throughout the colonies. Eventually Leeds soured in the public eye to the point that he was accused of literally working for the Devil. 

When Daniel Leeds retired, he gave his almanac business over to his son Titan, who quickly got into a feud with future Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, wanting to mess with Titan it seems, used astrological signs to predict the date of his rival's death.  When the date came and went with Titan very much alive, Franklin joked that the man was, in fact, dead, but his printing company was being run by his unquiet spirit.

The unpopular reputation of the Leeds family, combined with Franklin's joke about one of them being a spirit from the Other Side slurried together in the local gossip circles until the whole clan became "political and religious monsters" -- (The Jersey Devil: The Real Story, Brian Regal)
Matters weren't helped any by the fact that Leeds' personal coat of arms bore a wyvern on it-- a creature remarkably similar to later descriptions of the Jersey Devil.

So it seems the Jersey Devil is not a hexed child, a bizarre unknown animal or an outright demon.  Rather it is a recollection of a recollection of gossip about a much-maligned Revolutionary-era family.

Go here to read Regal's much more detailed article.

For my depiction of the Jersey Devil, I based the head on the Hammerheaded Bat (Hypsignathus monstrosus), since to me the boxy head of the classic Devil depiction from 1909 somewhat resembles this creature.  The body of the beast is that of a Vampire Bat (Desmodus rotundus)